Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

15 November 2013

France was taken by surprise this week when its economy contracted unexpectedly by 0.1 per cent in the third quarter of the year. It is a tiny fraction but a turn for the worse that has been felt across the country. As with every hard fiscal fact there is a brand, business owner and workforce that feel the effects in very real terms.

Amid calls for François President Hollande to overhaul his nation’s economy – and critically, to boost production – one iconic company was playing its swan song. Paris’s most famous piano maker, Pleyel, said it was closing the doors of its workshop in the suburb of Saint-Denis citing repeated financial losses and low levels of production. Pleyel’s demise is a loss to the cultural fabric of France – the brand was adored by the likes of Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. But its undoing is also a blow to the country’s strong traditions of making and craft.

Of course, there was much lamentation as music aficionados mourned the loss of Pleyel. After all, there are still about a dozen leading piano-makers in Germany. How had the likes of Steinway & Sons in Hamburg managed to keep going when Pleyel could not? The French are very good at musing over the reasons why. Yesterday, in the French Alpine city of Grenoble I had lunch with a seasoned business leader who gave a philosopher’s analysis into the state of the French business spirit. Are the French too academic? Too rooted in concepts and ideas without the business brio of some of their neighbours?

Some reforms may well be needed in French education and business. But during the past few days while I’ve been touring factories, workshops and labs here, I have been reassured by the distinct spirit found in Grenoble. Its very “Frenchness” is innovative – not simply global but rooted in its identity, ideas, research and self-belief. The psyche of the nation – with its focus on the big questions – is what’s propelling scientists and entrepreneurs here.

After lunch, I made my way down a winding road to a see a company that is a shining light of French business acumen. Airstar is a firm founded by two Frenchmen in the late 1990s after the actor, theatre producer and lighting designer Pierre Chabert needed a luminous balloon for one of his productions. Through collaboration with the local tech and science crowd the company grew from there – and now sells to 40 locations around the world.

Its customers range from Dior and Disneyland to the US army and Schneider Electric. Chabert told me yesterday that at any one time there are a least two films on location being made with the assistance of his luminous balloons. Nearly all the balloon production takes place in Grenoble using fabrics from nearby Lyon.

“But of course,” he said, wearing a Gallic striped jumper from Brittany. ”We are French.”

Sophie Grove is senior editor of Monocle

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